Book review: ‘The Dun Cow Rib’ by John Lister-Kaye

A very natural childhood.

The Dun Cow Rib

The Dun Cow Rib is John Lister-Kaye’s memoir of his childhood, and of his development as a naturalist and conservationist.

Born into a privileged family, John was dispatched to boarding school at an early age after his mother developed a rare and serious heart condition. Formal education at a strict school did not sit well with young John, who was always landing himself in trouble—sometimes deservedly, other times through no fault of his own. His father eventually removed him to another school, and then another. The third, somewhat unconventional, private school was far better suited to a boy fascinated by the natural world: there was an important, ecologically rich wildlife patch adjoining the school, and one of the teachers actively encouraged John to develop his interest in natural history.

Running in parallel with the account of John’s education are accounts of his mother’s ongoing illness and medical interventions, which involved pioneering heart-surgery. The tale is set against the backdrop of home life in his grandfather’s manor house. I particularly enjoyed reading about the grandfather, who lost a leg late in life in an incident almost identical to that in which my own great grandfather, also late in life, lost his.

After school, Lister-Kaye gradually migrated towards a life in conservation through friendships with naturalist and future TV-presenter Terry Nutkins and Nutkins’ mentor and guardian Gavin Maxwell, author of Ring of Bright Water.

The Dun Cow Rib is an unusual, entertaining memoir. As to the family heirloom that provides the book’s title, I’m not giving too much away by saying that it is not a rib, and did not originate from a cow of any colour.